John Hiller knows chemistry, not counseling. Until recently, he was a Customs and Border Protection scientist checking imported goods for drugs and toxins.
But a few weeks after being elected president of his union local at CBP’s Washington headquarters, the sequester struck. When the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts started taking effect this month, Hiller found himself fielding day-and-night phone calls and e-mails from employees worried about lost wages from as many as 22 furlough days.
“One thing I wasn’t prepared for was having a Gulf War veteran breaking into tears on the phone about being able to pay his bills,” said Hiller, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 128. “He’s a Marine just getting his life back together, and suddenly he’s looking at losing $300 a month.”
In the sequester era, union locals are the nexus of anxiety. The national unions, such as the NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), are waging the public budget battles on Capitol Hill. But it is to the offices of local union leaders such as Hiller that rattled federal workers — more than 300,000 in the Washington region — often turn for information, help and sympathy. Overnight, local union officials have become confidants, financial advisers and social workers.
“There is a curse I keep thinking of: ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” said Hiller, 59. “It’s both exhausting and rewarding to be in this job right now.”
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development one morning last week, AFGE Local 476 President Eddie Eitches walked the corridors, trying to buck up HUD workers with word of new concessions wrung from the agency.
“Hey, brother, how are you doing?” Eitches asked an employee in the elevator. “What do you think of the agreement?”
The employee, Victor Powell, had not heard of it.
Eitches, a quick-talking, constantly moving former HUD litigator, described negotiations that had reduced the number of furlough days between April and September to seven and ensured that they applied equally to managers and the rank and file.
“That’s better,” Powell said, nodding. “What about the transit supplement?”
Even in the best of times, it can be hard to stay cheerful inside HUD headquarters, a block of drab gray corridors in Southwest Washington once described by a HUD secretary as “10 floors of basement.”
In Local 476’s third-floor offices, next to the staff snack bar, there is not a scrap of natural light. So the walls have been covered with bright art.
“Since we don’t have windows, this is a way of comforting people,” said Eitches, standing beneath a massive portrait of Elvis Costello.
Workers have needed a lot of comforting since furloughs were announced. There were early warnings of as many as 22 forced days off, more than a month’s pay. That was a cause for panic among many staffers, especially coming on top of a three-year pay freeze.
Local 476 represents nearly 6,500 HUD workers. Melissa Jones, a HUD paralegal and union shop steward, has been quietly approached by dozens of them who say they are already living paycheck to paycheck. And sometimes, not so quietly.
“We get a lot of blame from people: ‘You’re not helping. What can you do?’ ” Jones said. “Sometimes I say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m in the same boat.’ ”
Jones is a single mother who lives with her three children in Baltimore County, where her bills of $3,000 to $3,500 a month already outstrip her GS11 salary by about $400. She is looking for a cheaper apartment and recently did not refill the $60 Advair inhaler she needs for asthma.
“We’ll be cutting back on groceries to get through these furlough days,” Jones said.
At CBP, employees are bracing for 14 unpaid days between April and September. For many of the 1,300 workers Hiller represents, that will be more of a setback than a disaster. (Hiller has scrapped his own plans to trade in his 10-year-old car, for at least another year.)
Better-off workers are full of technical questions: Can I substitute a vacation day? (No.) Can I batch them together? (Still undetermined.)
But for others, furloughs will mean missed bills and real pain. The agency rolls include employees at the low end of the wage scale — some kennel workers who care for the agency’s sniffer dogs make about $15 an hour, Hiller said — who already struggle with the region’s high cost of living.
When he meets with the hardest cases, Hiller has learned to listen first and go into problem-solving mode only after the emotion has subsided. Some workers are canceling cable service. Some are cutting up credit cards. Others will apply to the agency’s Employee Assistance Program.
Hiller has asked the credit union, where many workers bank, to consider rescheduling some loan payments. And because credit problems can interfere with their security clearances, he is advising workers to negotiate with creditors before they get a late-payment notice.
“It’s been kind of like dealing with a tragedy,” Hiller said.
He describes the five-step process his members are going through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“Those guys in Stage 5 are the ones making plans to minimize the impact,” he said.
Nate James, an IT specialist at the Environmental Protection Agency and president of AFGE Local 3331, said 13 days of planned furloughs has his cellphone ringing at all hours. He represents nearly 4,000 employees in the agency’s Washington headquarters.
James said the workers he talks to, sometimes late at night, are weary of the constant budget cuts and the public vitriol directed at civil servants. The number of employees applying for retirement has spiked.
“There’s a sense that if you can get out, you should,” said James, who spent 20 years in the military before going to the EPA. “It’s painful for people. They tend to really believe in the work we’re doing, protecting people’s air and water.”
He has been heartened, though, by other calls. Several senior staffers have asked James if they can take on additional furlough days and ease the load on vulnerable lower-level employees.
“You can call this a job, but at most jobs you don’t swear an oath,” said James, noting that he made the same pledge to “support and defend the Constitution” when he joined the civil service that he did when he joined the Marines.
At HUD, Eitches continued to work the dreary corridors. A HUD employee since the Carter administration and head of the local since 1999, he wandered the executive offices at will. Walking unannounced into the secretary’s suite — greeting each security guard with “Hello, brother,” on the way — he surprised acting chief of staff Peter Kovar in the big boss’s anteroom.
Kovar is one of nine Senate-confirmed appointees exempt from furloughs, and he and Eitches briefly discussed a proposal that would let those nine forgo their salary from each of the furlough days.
“We’d like to do that,” Kovar told him. “We wouldn’t want to walk in here each morning past people who are losing that pay and not do something to contribute.”